The Church is an institution of disappointment; it is not a disappointing institution.
I have been doing full time local-church work for almost 15 years now, and I have noticed that every Sunday the same two kinds of people come up to me. One of them is overflowing with joy and gratitude for the way that they experienced a small measure of the presence of God, and the other type of person is disappointed because they didn’t have that experience.
To be fair, these two categories are very fluid. Often a person is in the first category one week, and the second category the next. “Nothing can compare to last week’s assembly.” “Why don’t we sing that hymn again?”
And often people who have spent years of being apathetic or disappointed with church will find a new spark that changes the way they experience it. These people often are unaware that the main thing that has changed with their experience of church is them.
I am not saying this to try to label everyone in church. I am sure that there are plenty of other kinds of people each week, but in my experience these are the people who come talk to/email/reach out to me. And after 15 years of this, I have started to realize that God might be just as active in the second group’s life as He is in the first.
All throughout Christian history, the way the saints have talked about life with God is consolations and desolations. Consolations are those little graces that seem to make life a little more beautiful, the joy of a new child, the beauty of a familiar hymn, the fellowship of other Jesus followers, and the communion of the saints. Desolations are those things that we don’t brag about. The late-term miscarriage we had, or the road rage we had on the way to church, or the passive aggressive exchange we had with a Christian brother over something silly. Or worse, the way our small group took our spouse’s side when we were getting divorced, or how they didn’t come when we were in the hospital.
To be involved in any human community means accepting that we are going to be disappointed, and because churches can touch some deep part of the human soul, sometimes churches can disappoint us the most. The danger of this truth is that a lie can start to creep in, to use Scot McKnight’s words that “We need to find the perfect church” If we had just been at Willow Creek or Saddleback or the opposite of those places we would not have been overlooked, our song would have been sung, and all would be well.
But wherever you find church, you will find disappointment. If you ask most preachers, you will find out that Sunday nights are the hardest parts of their week. It is when most of us have what I call “the preacher hangover”. Our heads are fuzzy, and we find ourselves saying “Did I really say that?” Sunday nights can be legitimately depressing for anyone who dares to speak on behalf of God. Because we work all week long to say one thing, we give it our best shot, and no matter how good we do, no matter how hard we work, we will fail. Because we can’t say the only thing we want to say, which is “God”
On our best days, churches can give a kind of consolation to the soul. We can comfort and breathe life and a bit of the sacred into the world, but over time, as God starts to draw people closer to Him, even those familiar consolations will grow dry. We will use words like “boring” or “mundane” to describe what used to give us great excitement. Because those things weren’t God, they were only signposts that helped point to Him.
I say all this to say these three things to people who find themselves disappointed with Church
1) Sometimes your complaint is a calling. Maybe the reason it bothered you so much that no one came to visit you in the hospital is because you know that’s not who the church is supposed to be. And you are the church. It is easy to blame leaders/members/systems. But maybe the reason this is gnawing at you so much is because God is tapping you on the shoulder to minister to others out of the disappointment you have.
2) When you are disappointed with a church is the worst time to leave your church, especially to go to another church. I have seen the other side of this. People will come to Highland (the church I serve) and for a month or two they think it is the best thing since God made the blueberry pop-tart, but over time, the same disappointment creeps in. It turns out that humans are in this community too, and we don’t always do things right, we don’t always sing the songs that are on your IPod, or say just the right things, or respond in just the right ways. And if you change churches enough you will never learn to love the actual God, the same way you might never learn to love actual people.
3) Disappointment isn’t always bad. In fact, that is often when people grow the most. It is when we learn that we were leaning too hard on certain things, good things, but things that can’t bear the weight of our ultimate love. It is when we have to realize that God isn’t synonymous with what causes us to have goosebumps or an “aha” moment. God actually has bigger things in mind for our lives than a perpetual state of individual bliss. That was true for Jesus, and servants are not greater than their master.
And here is my word of encouragement to pastors out there. Over the past 15 years, I have realized that we church people who are disappointed are the same people God uses to change and serve and bless the world.
The church is a constant disappointment to many, but she is also the one who has started most hospitals, orphanages, relief aid charities, universities, leprosariums, and the like. She has passed on a way of self-sacrifice from generation to generation. More than any institution in human history, the church has changed the world.
She is an institution of disappointment, but she is not a disappointing institution.